Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (March 6 (N.S. March 18), 1844 – June 8 (N.S. June 21) 1908) was a Russian composer, one of five Russian composers known as The Five, and was later a teacher of harmony and orchestration. He is particularly noted for a predilection for folk and fairy-tale subjects, and for his extraordinary skill in orchestration.
Born at Tikhvin, 200 km east of St. Petersburg, into an aristocratic family, Rimsky-Korsakov showed musical ability from an early age, but studied at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in St. Petersburg and subsequently joined the Imperial Russian Navy. It was only when he met Balakirev in 1861 that he began to concentrate more seriously on music.
Balakirev encouraged him to compose and taught him when he was not at sea. Through Balakirev he also met the other composers of the group that were to become known as "The Mighty Handful" (better known in English-speaking countries as "The Five").
While in the navy (partly on a three-year world cruise), Rimsky-Korsakov completed his first symphony (1861-1865). This is sometimes claimed to be the first symphony by a Russian, but Anton Rubinstein composed his own first symphony in 1850. Before resigning his commission in 1873, Rimsky-Korsakov also completed the first version of his well known orchestral piece Sadko (1867) and the opera The Maid of Pskov (1872). These three are among several early works which the composer revised later in life.
In 1871, despite being largely self-educated within The Five rather than being conservatory-trained, Rimsky-Korsakov became professor of composition and orchestration at the St Petersburg Conservatory. During his first few years teaching at the Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov assiduously studied harmony and counterpoint to make up for the lack of thorough training during his years with The Five.
On July 12, 1872 he married Nadezhda Purgold (1848-1919), a pianist and composer. Mussorgsky was his best man. Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov was to become a major musical influence on Rimsky-Korsakov, much as Clara Schumann had been on her husband Robert.
In 1883 Rimsky-Korsakov worked under Balakirev in the Court Chapel as a deputy. This post gave him the chance to study Russian Orthodox church music. He worked there until 1894. He also became a conductor, leading symphony concerts sponsored by Mitrofan Belyayev (M. P. Belaieff), as well as some programs abroad.
In 1905 Rimsky-Korsakov was removed from his professorship in St Petersburg owing to his expressing some political views of which the authorities disapproved. This sparked a series of resignations by his fellow faculty members, and he was eventually reinstated. The political controversy continued with his opera The Golden Cockerel (1906-1907), whose implied criticism of monarchy upset the censors to the point that the premiere was delayed until 1909, after the composer's death.
Towards the end of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from angina. He died in Lyubensk in 1908, and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. His widow Nadezhda spent the rest of her life preserving the composer's legacy. In his decades at the Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov taught many composers who would later find fame, including Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Ottorino Respighi, and Artur Kapp.
Rimsky-Korsakov's legacy goes far beyond his compositions and his teaching career. His tireless efforts in editing the works of other members of The Five are significant, if controversial. These include the completion of Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor (with Alexander Glazunov), orchestration of passages from César Cui's William Ratcliff for the first production in 1869, and the complete orchestration of Alexander Dargomyzhsky's swansong, The Stone Guest. This effort was a practical extension of the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov's early works had been under the intense scrutiny of Balakirev and that the members of The Five during the 1860s and 1870s experienced each other's compositions-in-progress and even collaborated at times.
While the effort for his colleagues is laudable, it is not without its problems for musical reception. In particular, after the death of Modest Mussorgsky in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov took on the task of revising and completing several of Mussorgsky's pieces for publication and performance. In some cases these versions helped to spread Mussorgsky's works to the West, but Rimsky-Korsakov has been accused of pedantry for "correcting" matters of harmony, etc., in the process. Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain is the version generally performed today. Although his operas are seldom performed outside of Russia, the music has been widely performed and recorded through the orchestral suites that he compiled from the scores, particularly in the case of Mlada, Tsar Saltan. The music of his last opera is remarkably modern for its time and the four-movement suite extracted from its score has enjoyed considerable popularity via concerts and recordings.
Back to Famous Russian Composers